11 Ways to Treat Depression Without Medication
For many people living with depression, prescription medications can be wonder drugs. Antidepressants, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline). They can have side effects and can be expensive depending on your health insurance coverage.
There are many ways to counter some of the symptoms of depression that don’t involve prescription medications. If you have depression you might like to try managing it naturally, without medication, or supplement your antidepressant with other tactics. If so, check out these natural alternatives and then talk to your doctor about which might make sense as part of your treatment regimen.
Natural Ways to Manage Depression
Always take symptoms of depression seriously as depression doesn’t just go away on its own. While there are many things you can do to support your mental health, don’t try to just handle your symptoms alone. Talk to your doctor and discuss some of the self-help strategies that may support your treatment.
Get More Sleep
Sleep and mood go hand in hand. Get too little of the former and the latter is bound to flag (whether you have depression or not). Make sure you have what sleep experts call “good sleep hygiene.”1
This means you keep consistent bedtimes and wake-up times, your bedroom is set up for sound sleep (it’s dark, quiet, and uncluttered), you have a relaxing bedtime routine that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen, and so on.
The relationship between sleep and depression can be complex. Not only is poor sleep thought to contribute to the onset of depression, but depression may then cause low quality sleep.
Whether you can’t seem to get any sleep or can’t seem to stop sleeping, there are steps you can take to try to improve the quality of your sleep.
Give yourself a period to unwind before you go to bed; do something relaxing and avoid stressful tasks or thoughts.
Go to bed at the same time each night, and set an alarm so that you wake at the same time each morning.
Have a consistent bedtime routine.
Turn off your devices and try reading a book for a few minutes.
Also, try to spend a little time outside each day, even on days when you are tempted to draw the shades and hide indoors. Light plays an important role in regulating sleep cycles and circadian rhythms,2 so a lack of sunshine may be making it more difficult to sleep at night.
Cut Back on Caffeine
Coffee, tea, soda, and even chocolate are steeped in caffeine. It’s fine to indulge in a reasonable amount of caffeine in the morning, but if you do, don’t consume caffeine after late afternoon so it doesn’t interfere with sleep.
If you do tend to rely on caffeine, try cutting back gradually in order to avoid unpleasant symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. When you are craving a soda or cup of coffee, try going for a short walk around the block instead.
What to Know About Caffeine Use
Get More Vitamin D
There’s some evidence that a deficiency of this important nutrient could play a role in depression.3 If you aren’t getting enough vitamin D through your diet and lifestyle (like sun exposure), ask your doctor if you should try taking a supplement.
Certain nutrient deficiencies can play a role in depression symptoms. If you are having a difficult time spending enough time outdoors or if overcast weather conditions make it hard to get sunshine, a supplement may be useful.
For treating mild to moderate depression, dietary supplements such as St. John’s Wort, S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), and 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) may be worth a try.4
Research has shown that St. John’s wort is more effective than a placebo at relieving symptoms in those with mild-to-moderate depression.5
Be careful with these substances, though. Don’t take any of them without checking with your doctor first. Just because they’re available without a prescription and are touted as natural doesn’t mean they’re always safe.
For example, mixing St. John’s wort with an SSRI such as Prozac can lead to a complication called serotonin syndrome.6 Also, SAM-e carries a risk for hypomania/mania in bipolar disorder.
Tap Your Spirituality
No need to join a church, synagogue, or mosque (although certainly for many people dealing with depression, religion can be an impactful source of support). But simple daily practices such as meditation or adding to a list of things you’re grateful can help boost mood and overall well-being.
Meditation can have a range of beneficial effects such as lowering stress levels and helping people to become more aware of their thoughts and reactions.
Research indicates that an intervention called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness meditation, can be helpful in treating depression and preventing future relapses of symptoms.7
Studies also suggest that different types of mindfulness meditative practices can also be effective in the treatment of depression.8
There are many different types of meditation, but you can get started with a simple meditative exercise:
Close your eyes
Focus on how your body feels while you breathe
When your mind wanders, redirect attention back to your breathing
Get More Exercise
This doesn’t mean train for a marathon, but it does mean putting in a half-hour or so of low-intensity activity each day, which has been found to be effective in improving mood and quality of life.9 Even better, take it outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are especially healing for folks dealing with a special form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
While research has shown that regular physical activity can be effective in both the prevention and treatment of depression,10 it can be hard to start an exercise habit when you’re depressed. Lack of energy and low mood may mean that you simply feel too fatigued to get up and get active.
Some things that you can try to stick to your habit:
Enlist a friend.Ask a loved one to walk with you or do another form of exercise at least a few times a week. Having the support of a friend can not only help get you into a routine, but it can also help you maintain those social connections when you are feeling down.
Remind yourself of the benefits. Getting started is tough, but doing it is something that will help you feel better in the long-term.
Start small. Try walking for just a few minutes each day, then work on gradually increasing your walks.
How Physical Exercise Benefits Mental Health
Alcohol in and of itself is a depressant. Oddly enough, drinking can interfere with sleep, and quality sleep is a key to battling the blues. While alcohol might seem like a quick fix to escape what you are feeling, it can actually make many of the symptoms of depression feel much worse.11
Not only that, but it can decrease inhibitions and potentially lead to risky behaviors and bad decisions that can have long-term consequences.
If you’re taking any sort of antidepressant, you really shouldn’t drink at all. Alcohol doesn’t interact well with medication.
If you have been misusing alcohol or other substances and need help quitting, talk to your doctor. You may also have an alcohol or substance use disorder as well. Withdrawal symptoms may temporarily worsen symptoms of depression, so you may need extra assistance as you go through this process.
How Substance Use Can Lead to Mood Disorders
Eat ‘Good Mood’ Food
What you put in your mouth can have a direct effect on how you think and feel. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet, one that’s rich in nutrients and low in saturated fat. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you analyze your eating habits and pinpoint potential nutrient deficiencies that could contribute to depression.
Some foods that may be beneficial when you have depression:
Fish: Research has found that people who ate a diet high in fish were less likely to have symptoms of depression.12 Fish are high in omega-3 fats, which play a role in helping neurotransmitters such as serotonin work in the brain.
Nuts: Nuts are also a good source of omega-3 fats and one study indicated that people who ate walnuts were 26% less likely to have symptoms of depression.13
Probiotics: Research is increasingly pointing to a connection between gut and brain health.14 Foods high in probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha.
Change Your Thoughts
Pollyanna-ish as it may sound, thinking good thoughts can help you feel good. Your thoughts truly do have a direct bearing on your mood. If you’re struggling with negativity, consider seeing a therapist to help you learn ways to counter it.
One of the most popular and effective treatments used in the treatment of depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).15 This form of psychotherapy focuses on identifying negative thinking patterns and then replacing them with more positive ones. There are different ways that you can practice some of these ideas on your own.
Learn to Recognize Negative Thinking
Sometimes these thoughts can be obvious, such as times when you berate or criticize yourself. Other times, they can be more subtle. You might find yourself engaging in things like catastrophizing or all-or-nothing thinking.
Catastrophizing involves always anticipating negative outcomes. All-or-nothing thinking means that you think of things as either successes or failures. Once you get better at recognizing these cognitive patterns, you can start working on some healthier replacements.
Reframe Your Thoughts
When you find yourself having a negative thought, consciously reframe it in a positive way. For example, you might replace something like “This will never work” with something more positive such as, “Here are a few things that I can try that will help me get started.” Shifting your focus to your strengths and abilities can help you maintain a more positive mindset.
Get a Handle on Stress
Stress can drive up levels of a brain chemical called cortisol, which has been found to be higher in folks with depression.16 There are lots of strategies for coping with stress, such as time management, meditation, and biofeedback training.
Some stress-relieving activities that you might want to incorporate into your daily life include:
Deep breathing: A few minutes to slow your breathing and focus your attention on your body in the moment can help you get a better handle on your worries.
Exercise: Regular physical activity is a great way to blow off steam.
Progressive muscle relaxation: This process involves intentionally tightening muscles throughout the body, holding that tension for several counts, and then releasing that tension until the muscles are completely lax. With regular practice, you may be able to learn how to intentionally relax your body fairly quickly whenever you are feeling tense.17
Learning to manage your stress takes time and practice. Talk to your doctor or therapist about other strategies you might try to minimize the stress and your response to it.
Tend to Your Social Life
When you’re depressed, there’s no reason to go it alone—and all sorts of reasons to reach out to friends and family. Make plans with loved ones and keep those dates. Join a club or sign up for a group activity such as a local dodgeball league, for example, or a French class.
Other things you might try:
Join a support group. Talking to other people who are facing the same experiences and challenges can be informative and helpful.
Schedule activities. Having routines can be helpful when you are going through depression. Create a daily schedule that includes spending time with others. You are more likely to stick to it if its a scheduled event.
Volunteer.Joining a cause that you care about is a great way to meet new people and expand your social circle.
The problem is that depression often causes people to withdraw, which only further exacerbates feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even when you don’t feel like going out or being social, try reaching out in whatever way is most comfortable for you. Enlist a few of your closes loved ones who understand what you are experiencing.
Doing the things you used to do might not bring you quite the same enjoyment, but getting out of the house and spending time with people who care about you can help you feel better.